Reinhard Keiser: Passion Music

The great oratorios and Passion settings of the High Baroque are effective in part because they successfully combine various forms of musical discourse; they draw on opera, on chorales and other forms of devotional music, on pastoral themes (where would Messiah be without those?), on political and military ideas, and more. In order for Bach and Handel to accomplish what they did, someone had to carve out a space in the sacred music sphere for them. Hamburg composer Reinhard Keiser, best known (when he is known at all) for his operas, was one of these figures, and this release from the specialist German label CPO, which has embarked on an intriguing project covering two centuries of church music from the Hanseatic city, does a top-notch job of illuminating the ways he did it and the circumstances under which he did it. The booklet notes (in English and German) by conductor Thomas Ihlenfeldt concisely and entertainingly explain the factors in play: arrayed against the musically conservative clergy of the city’s large churches were smaller churches and also its cathedral, which was partly under foreign (for a time Swedish) control. And Hamburg was full of talented opera singers eager for work during periods (such as Lent) when theaters were closed. The three works here, collectively designated as Passion music but including a motet, a partial Passion setting, and a series of arias entitled Seelige Erlösungs-Gedancken (Thoughts on the Soul’s Redemption), all anticipate the forms and modes of expression used by Bach, and especially Handel. All are made up of recitatives and arias, with the first two framed by very brief choruses and choral exclamations from the crowd, like those in Bach’s or Schütz’s settings, in Wir gingen alle in der Irre, setting material from the Passion According to Luke. The recitatives in this work are noteworthy in their depth and variety, but perhaps the most interesting are the Seelige Erlösungs-Gedancken, which have a reflective and inward tone suggesting that Keiser knew the slightly older and often magnificent chamber sacred music of Buxtehude. The performers, with an unusual variety of international backgrounds, turn in generally strong efforts; the quiet warmth of mezzo-soprano Olivia Vermeulen is especially in tune with the expressive dimensions of the music. The choruses are sung with one voice per part, simply by the assembled soloists, and indeed music like this, where the chorus doesn’t really have much to do, provides a decent argument for the one-voice-per-part procedure (it’s much more troublesome in chorale-based music like Bach’s). A very strong outing from CPO’s adventurous catalog, and it makes one want to check out other releases in the Hamburg series.

— James Manheim,

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Arvo Pärt: Johannes-Passion


1. Choir Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi
2. Jesus Dixi Vobis Quia Ego Sum
3. Jesus Ego Palam Locutus Sum Mundo
4. Evangelist Et Misit Eum Annas Ligatum
5. Pilate Quam Accusationem Affertis Adversus
6. Jesus Regnum Meum Non Est De Hoc Mundo
7. Pilate Ecce Adduco Vobis Eum Foras
8. Evangelist Et Exinde Quaerebat Pilatus
9. Jesus Mulier Ecce Filius Tuus
10. Choir Qui Passus Es Pro Nobis

Candomino Choir
Tauno Satomaa, director

One of Arvo Pärt’s most extensive works, Passio Domini nostril Jesu Christi secundum Joannem is one of the most genuine examples of his tintinnabuli music. Pärt started planning this composition in the late 1970s, while still in Estonia. According to the composer, he came up with an idea of writing a passion setting during a Lent one year. The main structure of the composition was created in only two days and that outline was partly monophonic. After his emigration, Pärt received a commission by Bayerische Rundfunk and thoroughly revised his sketches. The work was completed in 1982 and was premiered in Munich in November of the same year by Bavarian Radio Chorus conducted by Gordon Kember. The CD Passio, recorded by the Hilliard Ensemble with Paul Hillier was released in 1988 by ECM, bringing wider international recognition to the work.

The text of Passio is taken from the Gospel of St. John and includes both narrative parts and direct speech. The words of the Evangelist, making up the major part of the text, is divided between four singers (soprano, countertenor, tenor, bass) and accompanied by four instruments (viola, oboe, cello and bassoon). Thus, the Evangelist’s speech can be given a wide range of timbre variations. The parts of St. Peter, the high priests, servants and other characters as well as the crowd are sung by the choir, sometimes accompanied by organ. The part of Jesus is sung by a bass voice, while the words of Pontius Pilate are sung by a tenor. They are both accompanied by organ.

The part of the Evangelist follows a strict structure. Arvo Pärt divides this text into four sections. Each section begins with a different solo voice, that gradually joins with other voices and instruments, until full configuration is achieved. Then a process of reversal begins: reducing the voices one by one, until the texture gradually becomes thinner, reaching back to a single voice. A similar process is repeated in each section.

The sound of the two solo parts includes features to match the character and role of Jesus and Pontius Pilate. The part of Jesus is two times slower than the parts of others, symbolising eternity with its slowness. The internal dilemma of Pontius Pilate is expressed by polytonality – simultaneously using different keys in the melody and tintinnabuli voices.

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Johann Christoph Rothe: Matthäus-Passion

It’s a little hard, now, for us to imagine just how ubiquitous music-making was in many German States throughout the Baroque era. How vibrant and essential it was to their communities. Communities which were both closely-knit internally, yet connected on many levels one with the other. Even a casual perusal of the life of J.S. Bach reveals how typical (except in number!) were his connections, ties and allegiances across (and beyond) rural Thüringia and Saxony in the central south-eastern corner of what is now Germany. Johann Christoph Rothe was probably born in 1653 in Roßwein southeast of Leipzig into a family which (as the Bachs’) had a distinguished tradition of varied musical service to their communities. He was very much a part of this society and part of similar “networks”.

Like members of the Bach family, Rothe is believed to have received musical training (in Coburg, some distance south) as a performer; and to have changed appointments at his own request – presumably in the (vain?) hope that the next one would be better than the present. Other details of his life are sketchy. But we do know that he ended up in Sondershausen, which is now capital of the Kyffhäuserkreis district and lies about 50 km (30 miles) north of Erfurt. There it was that we know he wrote his only extant work, the Matthäus Passion in 1697, three years before his death, when he was just 47.

Musikerbe Thüringen (Music Legacy Thuringia) is a laudable project supported by the Free State of Th&uum;ringia with the aims of identifying, publishing and disseminating the rich musical heritage (into which J.S. Bach was born) of the region between 1500 and 1780. The CD set under consideration is the first in a series of an equally to be admired and supported collaboration with the enterprising CPO label.

The work lasts just over an hour and a half, on two CDs. It makes an illuminating context for otherwise appreciating Bach’s Matthew Passion of 20 years or so later. It’s a valid and compelling piece in its own right, though; and we are fortunate to have an equally inspired performance by Cantus Thuringia and Capella Thuringia under Bernhard Klapprott. And apart from the obvious invitations to compare Rothe’s with Bach’s works, several contrasts emerge immediately. They bear examination in that they help us to appreciate this earlier Passion for its own sake.

Rothe’s work is more operatic, which is not to say more dramatic, than Bach’s… the older composer was exposed to opera at Coburg and often makes a liturgical impact by contrasting instrumentation, texture, tempi… and by his use of the pause. Bach’s work is much longer, of course; more varied and with as greater range of emotional and human insights. Unsurprisingly, then, Rothe’s Matthäus Passion is more intimate, less ambitious; it generally attempts to draw on less spectacular music and dramatic traditions than does that of Bach. Whether or not Rothe was familiar with the Matthew Passions of Johann Sebastiani (printed in 1672 in Königsberg) and Johann Theile (1673, Lübeck) we don’t know. In any case, the present work remains the earliest surviving oratorio passion (as opposed to the chorale passion, which is based on a single Gospel’s text) from this part of Germany. And as such is of considerable interest. It’s performed beautifully enough on this set, though, to make great listening even were it not for the historical interest. It should be acquired by any lover of the German Baroque.

Despite Rothe’s Matthäus Passion’s not making anything like the impact through variety and rhetoric that Bach’s work does, the pace, musical architecture and alternation of chorus, aria, recitative, and a purely instrumental opening make Rothe’s a compelling work and one which draws the listener in immediately and holds his/her interest to the last note. Few of the numbers are longer than three minutes or so; the longest is only seven. Yet this is not a flurry of lightweight or diluted ideas. Rather, there is an integrity and deep understanding of and empathy with the passion story which is very well brought out by three soloists in addition to members of Cantus and Capella Thuringia, of five singers and nine instrumentalists (including Bernhard Klapprott, organ, harpsichord as well as director) respectively. They were formed in 1999 in Weimar. Performers take the parts of the Evangelist, Christus, Pilate’s wife, Peter and Judas etc.

What may surprise you, though (there are no other recordings currently available of music by Rothe, let alone of this work) is the extent to which the development of the passion narrative is so precisely, delicately yet uncompromisingly pursued. No spare sequences or superfluous emotional “backwaters”, for instance. What’s just as pleasing is the drive, and yet a considered and sensitive drive, with which these performers approach the highly charged and indeed passionate story they’re telling. In full accord with the way in which the idea of a Bible story in accessible form (music) was conceived. Listen to the way in which the Evangelist provides weight to the longer recitatives describing the events after the crucifixion itself [CD.2 tr.s 9, 11, 13], for example. No let up in intonation. Yet no overplaying. The sense we are left with is a superb balance of fulfillment yet grief.

The booklet that comes with this resonant yet direct recording provides clear and informative background information – on the likely performance practice in Sondershausen at the close of the seventeenth century, for example. (We are particularly fortunate that the chapel library in the town preserves documents supporting this.) The text is reproduced in German and English, with indications of the instruments (and singers) used for each.

This is a performance which has a great deal more than curiosity value. The singing is first rate; the performers’ familiarity with and skill at conveying the finer points of the idiom are evident, without ever intruding. The melodies are pleasing, if not so original as those of Bach. Textures and tension are thoughtful and contribute towards making an impact which must surely have both enthralled and satisfied the communities in one of those quiet, self-confident and very human-sized towns in that delightful part of Germany.

— Mark Sealey,

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Steve Reich: Pulse, Quartet

In 2016, composer Steve Reich celebrated a milestone birthday and to mark the occasion an upward of hundreds of performances of his work were performed at various places around the globe. These performances and celebrations just confirmed the almost unfathomable beauty and timelessness of his oeuvre as they represented 50 years in music. They also confirmed why he is an important part of the contemporary music landscape for many generations and not just in classical music.

Apart from revisiting past achievements from his large oeuvre, during the celebrations named “Reich at 80,” he also premiered a new piece “Pulse” which is now a part of the new album titled Pulse/Quartet that unites two recent compositions of his. “Pulse” dates from 2015 and was partially inspired Daft Punk’s collaboration with the esteemed 70’s producer Giorgio Moroder “Giorgio by Moroder.” That is evident in the electric bass that pulsates behind the melodies and movements. This is not the first time he has been inspired to write based on popular music as his previous outing Radio Rewrite was a five-movement piece that was built on themes from various Radiohead songs. “Pulse” was written for winds (clarinet and flute), strings, piano and an electric bass where the melodies stretch in arching lines. What is astonishing is the variety of sounds Reich has conjured from them. It’s a contemplative piece where every sound brims with life and the instruments seamlessly blend together thus achieving a layering effect.

The pulse has always been the heartbeat of Reich’s music and this is more evident in “Quartet” which is one of the most complex pieces that Reich has ever composed because of the frequent change of keys. It’s written for two pianos and two vibraphones and is performed by the Colin Currie Group. The Quartet is far more optimistic in tone and it reveals the fragmentary nature of Reich’s melodies. The repetitive segments and the pulsating effect which are fundamental for Reich’s music are more subdued in the segments and he uses these segments to achieve create a hypnotic effect. The instruments reiterate certain phrases, pulses, sounds and they always interact with each other. The combination of two pianos and the two vibraphones provides a rhythmic and harmonic foundation over which steady rhythms and intricate melodies mesh and layer together. There is that pulsating vitality that As a result, this gives the impression of a flowing effect where the music that gradually evolves and dissolves. It is tempting to label this music merely as minimalism, but to do so would be slightly misleading because there is so much happening in the midst of the pulse patterns and the layering melodies and sounds. Pulse/Quartet is a brilliant recording by a composer though he’s been around for many years is hitting his stride. The music is profound, enchanting, accessible and engaging.

–Nenad Georgievski,

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Nicolas Vallet: Lute Works

This fine program of works by 17th-century French lutenist/composer/teacher Nicolas Vallet will appeal primarily to lute players and devotees of plucked-string music of the northern European late-Renaissance/early Baroque. Vallet left France for Holland early in his career and spent the rest of his life there as a free-lance musician, member of a lute quartet, and instructor at his own dance school. But most importantly for today’s players and listeners, he also composed and arranged volumes of lute music, including the two-part collection known as Le Secret des Muses (1615 & 1616) and sets of Psalms, and he was careful to include detail regarding performing technique and fingering.

As experts will note, Vallet was a master at using the 10-course lute’s full range, notably employing the bass-register strings to a far greater degree than was common at the time. His contrapuntal skills are especially impressive (an influence attributable to his admiration for his contemporary, Sweelinck), heard more simply in pieces such as the Praeludium (track 17) or Courante (track 18), and more elaborately in Vallet’s setting of a Luther hymn, Onse Vader in Hemelryck. Vallet’s quartet included three expatriate Englishmen, and many of his arrangements are of Elizabethan songs and lute pieces, here represented by All in a Garden Green and Earl of Essex Galliard, among others.

Paul O’Dette unquestionably is one of today’s great lute masters, so it’s more than fitting that he should be bringing to our attention the work of one who was similarly regarded. The technique bears all the marks that listeners familiar with O’Dette’s many past recordings will recognize: exceptionally clean, clear articulation, careful attention to internal lines, tasteful ornamentation, and consummate musicianship that bestows just that extra ounce of listenability even to lesser-known or more routine works. Although the music and performances here won’t blow you away with flashy virtuosity or fiery fingerwork–it’s all fairly low-key–there’s a lot to listen to, as Vallet tends to keep things moving and seems to fill every space in the score with notes. The recording perfectly captures O’Dette’s instrument–a 10-course lute made in 1984 by Ray Nurse after Hans Frei–allowing us to appreciate its full body and warm brilliance without any annoying, close-miking sonic artifacts.

–David Vernier,

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